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Green roofs, chickens and city kitties

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2012 - Even as a kid, Hunter Beckham loved gardening. His family tended a vegetable patch at the community garden and he recalls visiting the gardens of many relatives over the years.

As an adult, Beckham now has his own garden, complete with a green roof and a variety of sustainable design features. He will show off his plantings during the Sustainable Backyard Tour from 11 a.m to 4 p.m, Sun., June 24.

Now in its second year, the Sustainable Backyard Tour is a free, self-guided tour of sustainable outdoor spaces in the St. Louis area. The event goes beyond just sustainable gardening to demonstrate a range of green living practices, including low-impact lawn care, composting, using recycled materials, raising chickens, beekeeping, rainwater conservation, pesticide and herbicide reduction, and renewable energy production, among others.

The idea for the tour originated in 2010 when Terry Winkelmann, owner of Home Eco, organized a tour of chicken coops in the neighborhood around her store.

“We weren’t sure how well it would go,” Winkelmann said. “There were chicken coops at maybe six or seven houses, but 150 people showed up. It was so well received that people started asking us ‘Well, when are you going to do other things, other tours?’”

After the initial success, Winkelmann put together the first Sustainable Backyard Tour in 2011, featuring 32 stops all over St. Louis city and county. By the day of the event, more than 1,300 people had registered.

This year, the number of stops has exploded to 54. Winkelmann also added several rest stops to the tour and recruited other local, green businesses to help sponsor the event. Last year, organizers emailed the list of tour stops to registered participants, but this year, anyone can pick up a Sustainable Backyard Tour booklet at the tour’s three retail sponsors — Home Eco, Local Harvest, and Kakao Chocolate — as well as online.

A launch party for the tour took place at Home Eco’s monthly Green Drinks gathering at Schlafly Bottleworks Tuesday night.

Winkelmann said she is excited to see how many people will show up Sunday. Some of the most popular stops on last year's tour featured animals such as chickens, bees, and goats. But Winkelmann said every house had somebody visit it.

“I’m looking forward to the community of it. You can read a lot, look at books, go to seminars, but when you see a real backyard and know somebody who’s doing it, that makes a difference,” Winkelmann said.

2125 Cherokee

Upon entering Barbara Nelson’s yard, you might feel as though you’ve stepped into another world. Decorated sustainably with used furniture and found materials, Nelson prides herself on the eclectic feel.

A huge apricot tree sits near the front of the yard, providing shade and fruit for the Nelsons throughout the year.

“I found the original family, the grandson and great grandson of the builder of this building from 1903,” Nelson said. “The story was that one of the uncles made apricot brandy during prohibition.”

She plans to try her hand at apricot brandy this year.

The other main feature of the yard is an 18-inch deep dry creek bed, which Nelson said is inspired by the Japanese Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Nelson has rain chains that drain water from her roof into the creek so that the house stays dry and is not connected to the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District.

Nelson’s yard also serves as a home for what she calls the St. Louis kitties. Originally searching for a solution to her mice problem, Nelson began leaving food out for stray, or feral, cats and now has several that guard her yard most nights.

“We found that the kitties are the answer. So that’s something I’d love to see the city do more of — the trap, neuter, and release program. All you have to do is put a bowl of food out and feed them and they’ll start coming,” she said.

Last year, Nelson said about 75 people came to see her yard, and she looks forward to sharing her yard with even more this year.

3515 Utah St

While many people involved in the Sustainable Backyard Tour simply enjoy living sustainably, some do it for a profession.

Cassandra Hage is the executive director of St. Louis Earth Day, and her yard is also a returning stop on the tour.

“We have about 300 square feet that’s pretty well planted — that’s the vegetable garden. Then we have fruit trees, 5 different kinds of berries, 20 different plants: strawberries and edibles throughout the yard. And we’re on a typical city lot, so it’s a small amount of space,” Hage said.

After working at several different farms over the summers while in college, Hage said she became interested in growing her own vegetables.

“I interpreted what I’d learned form large scale farms to growing in my own small garden. I used those techniques to get as much yield as possible,” she said.

This year, her husband has even gotten involved and will be doing a home brew demonstration during the tour.

4200 Botanical

Beckham, who lives in the Shaw neighborhood, will show his yard for the first time this year.

His yard includes a green roof over his garage as well as a butterfly and bird garden. The 600-square foot roof is planted with 20 to 30 plant species, which Beckham waters with water collected in rain barrels.

Beckham recently talked about his green roof at an event on June 12 put together by the U.S. Green Building Council-Missouri Gateway Chapter in partnership with St. Louis Green and St. Louis Earth Day.

He says he hopes people on the Sustainable Backyard Tour see that they can make their yards sustainable too.

“You just gotta have the will, and a little basic knowledge. Most people say ‘Oh, I could never do that, or I couldn’t afford to pay somebody to do that,’ but you can do it yourself,” Beckham said.

1616 Del Norte

For Deanna English, sustainability is a way of life.

“I guess I think it’s the only way people should live. I think we should be purposeful in our decisions that we make about how we live and I think by doing that it makes the world a better place,” English said.

English and her husband, who live in Richmond Heights, have turned their yard into a large sustainable garden.

“The idea was just to grow things that didn’t need a lot of attention and doesn’t require mowing. We actually use permaculture practices here, which (are) ecological principles to guide how you design your yard,” English said.

The pair also dry their laundry outside, use a solar cooker in the summer, collect water in rain barrels, and use repurposed material to decorate their yard. The goal, English said, is to spend as little money as possible and keep materials on site.

About 45 people visited English’s yard on the tour last year — a good number, she thought, so she could talk to all of her guests.

“I think I learned as much from the people who visit here as they did from me. It’s nice to meet people, hear about what they’re doing and share,” she said.

Abby Abrams is a Beacon intern.

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